Basic Model Railway Insights

How one becomes a model railroader

For any hobby, it usually starts with being given a camera, a packet of stamps, some crayons and art paper, or perhaps one finds a cache of old postcards. In our case, it's likely a train set one was given as a child, or one that was bought for a child, or a set put under the Christmas tree as a novelty. Or perhaps it was a visit to a model railway show or to a hobby store - just out of curiosity, of course. Whatever the beginning, the train set becomes a model railroad when one gets it off the floor into a designated space of its own, so that the track and scenery don't have to be set up and taken down each time.

That space is most popularly in a basement, but also commonly in an attic, garage, spare room, shed, garden, or on a ledge as part of a room used for some other purpose. Model railways have also been found under beds, or in a suitcase, or suspended from a ceiling with hoistable pulleys and rope, or as a module stored in a closet and brought out when needed. 
Whatever your choice, remember though that the twin arch enemies of all model railways are dust and damp. 

Leaving aside the garden railway and the ledge in a room options, the other choices require the ability to construct a simple frame, referred to by modellers as "the benchwork". If one can handle a saw, drill, hammer and a set of screwdrivers, all that is needed is a good "how to" book available in any hobby store, a little confidence, and a visit to a building supply store. Ideas can also be obtained from talking to other enthusiasts, and one will very quickly discover that everyone has their own ideas of what works for them. The fact is that no two "benchworks" are built the same way. The hardest part is always making a start, but it's so surprisingly easy that you will wonder what kept you so long. The only hard-and-fast rule about "benchwork" is that it must not collapse if you lean on it, so build sturdy and brace well!

Getting started
The very first question that you should ask yourself is:
What do I want from my model railway?
Such as - and there may be others:

  • A creative outlet for scenery, electronics, make-believe?
  • Just to enjoy running some trains?
  • Are there going to be any children involved?
  • Running sessions with other modellers?
  • Is it to be portable (as in going to someone else's place or to an exhibition)?

Once such questions have been answered, those answers need to be factored into whatever decisions are made next.

With the objectives defined, the business of then getting the train set off the ground does come with some basic decisions that have to be made, three of which ought to be made early on. These are set out below. To make these decisions, information is important, and there is lots of it available from asking those already in the hobby, from hobby magazines, helpful hobby store dealers, and from the Internet. In fact a number of links on this website may be helpful, which in turn will lead to others. As a start, the World's Greatest Hobby site will provide a good basic outline. 

I also offer my capsule series of leaflets BASIC MODEL RAILROADING as a supplement and a summary of what is available in greater detail in model railway magazines, "how to books", with one-on-one advice and on the Internet:

1. Introduction and Three Initial Decisions 
2. A Home for your Railway (benchwork)
3. Laying track 
4. Powering and Wiring the Layout 
5. Scenery and Structures
6. The Prototype and the Model (also for more detail see my drop-down menu article The Credible Model)
7. N Scale 
8. HO Scale
9. O, G and 1 Scales
10. Other Scales and Gauges

For a most informative treatise on "Gauge and Scale", by toy train historian Fred van der Lubbe, please click here

First, some essential terminology: 
First of all – what is scale?
Scale is the size relationship of the model to the real railway equivalent (its "prototype"). Scale is usually expressed as a ratio, e.g., 1:87. That means that 1 inch or cm or ft of model represents 87 inches or cm or ft of the real thing. (That happens to be the ratio of the most popular railway modelling scale – H0.)
An understanding of scale and the ability to convert measurements from the prototype measurement to the model measurement and vice-versa is important for the serious modeller.
One can use a scale conversion calculator that will make the calculation for you, such as this one, or if you are handy with a pocket calculator, you can do it by means of simple multiplications and divisions.
For example, if you want to know the length of a 40' boxcar in H0 scale (1:87):
Divide 87 (the H0 scale ratio) into 40. That comes to 0.4597 of a foot.
Multiply that by 12 inches to convert that to inches, and the answer is 5.517" for the length of an H0 scale 40' box car, or just over 5 and a half inches.
Or if you want to make the same calculation for an N scale 40' boxcar:
Divide 160 (the N scale ratio) into 40. That works out to 0.25 of a foot. Again, multiply that by 12 to convert that to inches, and the answer is 3 inches.
Or if you want to know how tall a 6' figure is in G scale (1:26), divide 26 (the G scale ratio) into 6, which produces 0.2308 of a foot. Multiply that by 12 to get inches, and the answer is 2.77 inches – just over 2 and three-quarter inches.
Going the other way, if you have a 4" length N scale locomotive, and you want to know what the length of the prototype equivalent would be, multiply 4 by 160 (the N scale ratio). That works out to 640 inches or 53.3 feet, the length of the locomotive in real life.

OK, so what is "gauge"?
Gauge is the width between the rails, usually measured from inside edge to inside edge of the running rails, or from centre-top to centre-top of the running rails. 
Manufactured "narrow-gauge" track, (i.e., representing a prototype track of less than the 4ft 8in prototype standard gauge width (not to be confused with Lionel's pre-WWII toy train "Standard Gauge") is usually produced in a "lower" readily available model railway track gauge with broader ties in order to conform to scale. For instance, Scale 1 narrow gauge would be represented by Gauge 0 track with larger ties than that of Gauge 0 track that conforms to Scale 1. (Common prototype narrow gauges are 2 ft 6 in, 3 ft, 3 ft 6 in, and 1 m.)

A summary Table of Scales and Gauges
Scales and Gauges in use today, Standard/Wide, TT, Z and T less commonly so.  
Gauge Gauge width  Scale  (UK mm/ft) Ratio
Standard/Wide 54 mm / 2 1/8 inches  2   1:22.5 or 1:27 or 1:28
G (1)  45 mm/  1 3/4 inches 2   1:22.5 or 1:27 or 1:28
1  45 mm/  1 3/4 inches 1 10 1:32 or 1:30
0 32 mm/  1 1/4 inches  0 7 1:48 or 1:43.5 or 1:45
0n30 16.5 mm 0 7 1:48 or 1:43.5 or 1:45
S 24 mm/  7/8 inch S 4.7 1:64 or 1:65 (Europe)
H0 16.5 mm H0   1:87
H0n30, H0e (2) 9 mm H0/00   1:87 (1:76 Europe)
00 (UK) (3) 16.5 mm 00 4 1:76
TT 12 mm TT 3 1:120 or 1:101.6 (UK)
N 9 mm N 2 1:160 or 1:148 (UK)
Z 6.5 mm Z 1.4 1:220
T 3 mm T   1:450
(1) The popular so-called "G Scale" trains were originally European-style narrow gauge equipment to a scale/ratio of 1:22.5, running on 45 mm track, but this designation now commonly refers to both Scale 2 narrow gauge and Scale 1 trains, although Scale 1 trains should more prototypically run on Scale 1 track. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "G Scale", only a range of variously-scaled narrow gauge trains running on 45mm track. Among them is the emerging F Scale with a ratio of 1:20.32, or 15mm to the foot, its narrow gauge designated as Fn3 Scale. 
(2) There is also still a following for H0n3 (i.e., 36" prototypical narrow gauge), with a gauge width of 10.5 mm.
(3) In the UK, there is a substantial following for EM (18 mm) Gauge as a correct-to-scale track for the 00 scale ratio of 1:76. 

And while we are about it, what is "Code"?
In describing model railway track, "Code" refers to the height of the rail. For instance "Code 100" is rail 0.100 of an inch high, and has been the traditional standard in H0 Scale. H0 fine-scale variations are Peco™ and Atlas™ Code 83 (0.083") and Shinohara™ Code 70 (0.070"). N scale has traditionally been Code 80 (0.080"), but Codes 55 (0.055") and 40 (0.040") are now on the market. 

And turnout numbers, e.g. #4, 5, 6 and so forth?
Today's model railway turnouts are usually referred to as a # 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and so forth (known as the frog number). The frog number of a turnout is an expression of the degree of the diverging route's radius sharpness. For instance, in H0 scale, the converging inside rails of a #6 turnout where they meet (at the "frog") measure 6 inches from the frog to the toe of the turnout. In N scale, the equivalent for a #4 turnout is approximately 2.2 inches, for a #6, 3.27 inches, and for a #8, 4.36 inches.
A #4 turnout is therefore "sharper" (has a tighter radius) than a #6; a #6 is "sharper" than a #8; and a #8 is "sharper" than a #10. 
The "toe" of a turnout is where the rails of the turnout diverge (the switchstand end!). 
The "heel" of a turnout is the other end of the turnout where the two tracks have diverged.

And last but not least, Scale Speed?
Scale speed is the speed of a moving locomotive in relation to its scale. We have all seen model trains racing around at something that equate to something like 200 mph in real time. It’s perhaps fun, but it’s not realistic. I remember having a young lad come up to me at a train show and ask: “Mister, how fast can you make that engine go?” I replied: “Ah son, in model trains the challenge is not how fast you can make it go, but how slow.”  He walked away really disappointed-looking, but in truth, that’s the challenge. It’s a combination of the quality of the locomotive motor, the cleanliness and continuity of the pick-up from the track and the capacity and sensitivity of the power source. The ultimate test might be for how effortlessly and smoothly a yard “goat” might go about switching cars in and out of a few sidings.  To assist with providing an idea of scale speeds, please click here.   

The four Initial decisions:

1. Alright, with all that terminology cleared up, let us come back to the first basic decision that has to be made, namely that of scale. If you already have a train set, that decision has likely already been made - if you are happy with your train set, that is. If the decision still has to be made, as a generality, most modellers start in H0 scale (1:87, 16.5mm gauge), and become attracted to other options (acquired tastes!) as they grow in the hobby. If there are youngsters to be considered, H0 (or larger, perhaps 0 or even G scale) is likely the scale of choice. 
In my case, I did become an N scale devotee after some years in H0/00 scale. I believe that N scale (1:160, with a 9mm gauge) has a lot of scope and flexibility, especially in a limited space, but if any aspect of one's personal health could be an issue, such as a steady hand or good eyesight, it might be better to opt for H0 scale or larger, adjusting the layout design to the space available - it is better to have a simple switching yard than no layout at all. 
2. The second is the design of your benchwork, including height.
Don't build anything that can't be taken apart and moved without destroying what you have created. Most modellers, having endured the anguish of tearing out one or two permanent layouts, resolve to work with freestanding modules in future. 
A module is a section of model railway that is self-contained or can be connected to another section of the same or another layout.
For sturdiness of the horizontal frame, opt for 1" x 3" bench work as a minimum, and for the legs, if you're working with wood, 2" by 4" legs no more than 6 ft apart at the outside. Knotty pine works fine if you select good pieces, but "select" pine is preferable. Do not be tempted to use spruce.
Brace generously with angle or cross pieces. 
And if you are building modules that you may have to move, make sure that they can negotiate the usual limitations of staircases and doorways!

The preferred height for the main layout surface is usually between 42" and 48". Your own physical comfort for "working" on your layout should be the decider. (I am 5 ft eight, and 45" suits me well.)

Once the frame is up and braced, it has to be decked. The two popular deckings are plywood and high-grade styrofoam sheeting, both obtainable at building supply stores. There is also homasote trainboard (also called fibre- train- or soundboard) that was the modeller's first choice for years, but it is not stocked as universally as it used to be. Any of these should be cross-braced horizontally across the frame, ideally 12" but no more than 16" apart. With plywood (no less than 1/2" thick), a corkbed track underlay (obtainable at all hobby stores) is recommended to deaden the noise of the train and to facilitate tracklaying.

Styrofoam sheeting (good quality pink or blue, not the cheaper granular kind) is very popular now because it is light, readily available, economical, impervious to humidity, and easy to trim. It is recommended that styrofoam sheeting be inlaid into the frame rather than placed on top of the frame. The 1" thickness works fine, but the 2" thickness will allow you to carve scenic depressions without weakening the deck, and thus give you some flexibility for including riverbeds and so forth. And any bits and pieces left over after trimming are ideal for above-track level contour outlines.  Remember to use "foam nails" or other cement or glue that will bond styrofoam. Before laying track or making scenery, remember to paint the styrofoam with a base colour latex or acrylic paint (let your paint store advise you) - dark "earth" and mid-green are common choices.  With the 2" styrofoam thickness, a 1"x 4" frame is recommended. 

There are two basic styles of decking - solid (i.e., the whole top is covered), or open (i.e., there is only decking where the tracks and buildings are, and is usually only undertaken with plywood or homasote decking). Many modellers use a mix of both styles of decking. Open decking has to be supported by "risers" fastened vertically to the horizontal cross-bracing. 2x1" or 3x1" knotty pine will work fine. The advantage of open decking is that it allows for below deck scenery and easy pop-up access, but it does require careful pre-planning of the track layout, and skill with a jigsaw to fashion the required sections.

3. The third is power supply
Traditionally, since WWII, most model railways in the smaller scales have been powered with power packs converting mains voltage to 12 volt direct current (DC). In the past few years, the hobby has been migrating to Digital Command Control (DCC), which simplifies wiring, provides for the simultaneous operation of multiple locomotives without the hindrance of "blocks" or "cabs", and comes with impressive realism in lighting and sound. The initial investment, however, is considerable. Again, research is advised, and there are many good "how-to" books on wiring and methods of control. 

4. A word about coupler designs.
Traditionally, equipment (motive power and cars) in North America has been offered in H0 scale with the NMRA standard coupler, but the Kadee™-type coupler is now becoming predominant. Similarly in N scale, equipment has been traditionally offered with the "Rapido" (or "Elsie")-type coupler, but the Microtrains™-type coupler (similar to the Kadee™ coupler), is now rapidly becoming standard. The modeller should therefore be aware as to whether to operate with two types of couplers (potentially an operating headache), or whether to standardize to the Kadee-Micro Trains™ -type coupler and convert the non-conforming equipment.  

The model railway hobby in general
The wonderful challenge of our hobby is its scope for so many different interests and skills. Outsiders looking in on it often see it as being very technical. It is not nearly as technical as it appears, but in its aspiration, it is always an art form. 
Whenever our hobby bug bites, it is usually a lifelong affliction. The best one can do is to hope to control it by balancing resources and interests - the hobby is a wonderful servant for pleasure and relaxation, but it could be a terrible tyrant if one does not leave room for the other dimensions of one's life. The affliction may go into remission, but don't for one moment believe that you have been cured. If remission strikes, store, but do not dispose of what you have, for there is a good chance that the day will come when you are glad you kept it all.

Time, health and circumstance may dictate a change in scale or design. Think it through carefully, but remember that something is a lot better than nothing. Don't put yourself in the position where visiting a hobby store or show, or even just seeing someone else's layout, becomes a painful wishful memory. Even if one only has the equivalent of a table top for space, there is something absorbing to be accomplished with a flexible approach.
Choice of Scale - H0 predominates
One's choice of scale is a personal one. Some modellers participate in more than  one scale, but they usually retain a scale that is their main interest. The vast majority of modellers are in H0 scale. H0 (00 in the United Kingdom) became predominant in the years after World War II and still commands first place in the hobby. Consequently that scale offers by far the largest choice in manufactured ready-to-run and kit equipment, structures and accessories, and DCC (digital command control) has been the preferred method of control now for some years, with attractive options in on-board sound and lighting.

N scale
I had struggled in 00 scale (the British version of H0) for a number of years, with lessening satisfaction because I didn't seem to have the skills to make my modelling efforts convincing. Whether I have done so now is for others to judge, but when N scale appeared, I knew it was for me. At the time, N Scale endured the same sort of negativity as did H0 scale when it first replaced 0 scale as the predominant residential model railway scale. The arguments were along the same lines: "oh it's cute, but you need a jeweller's kit to work with it", "it's too small for the children", "it doesn't have the selection in equipment", "it's too small for scratch-building", and so on and so forth. Of course, these objections have merit, but it was also the inevitable reaction to something new. While N scale still only attracts about 20 per cent of modellers (proportionately more in Britain and Europe than in North America), I believe this number will increase as space and affordability pressures, the development of superior motive power mechanisms, the miniaturization of electronic technology, improving choice in RTR (ready-to-run) models, and above all the availability of DCC control with sound and lighting will persuade more and more modellers to give this scale a trial. While N scale has vast potential for a larger space, I believe that N is the answer for any modeller still sharp-of-eye and steady-of-hand, who wants a reasonable operating layout in a restricted space. For more, go to my article More about N Scale.

Narrow Gauge
With all of that said, G, 0 and H0 scale narrow gauge representation now seems to be gathering momentum for modellers who prefer to work in larger scales, but are intrigued by the idiosyncracies of narrow gauge operations, and are attracted by the more modest space demands proportionate to the scales involved, especially if one plans to exhibit as a "solo" modeller at a model railway show. Popular narrow gauge scales are true G scale (Scale 2 on 45mm track), Gn15 and 0n30 (on 16.5mm track) and H0e on 9mm track.

Aside from the practical considerations of space though, narrow gauge models, like their prototype, have a "whimsy" quality about them that let modellers draw on ingenuity, improvisation and imagination, not to mention sense of humour. As a group, narrow gauge enthusiasts probably do more scratchbuilding than standard gauge modellers, partly because the ready-made market is not as large, and partly because scratchbuilding is part of the fun of this branch of the hobby. Narrow gauge is an altogether interesting development, because it is another facet of the ongoing steady miniaturization of our hobby, combined with a pronounced urge for creative expression.

Gauge 0
This traditionally popular pre-WWII gauge (32mm or 1 1/4") and scale (1:48) has had a remarkable revival with the post-war comeback of the household Lionel name. It is robust, ideal for youngsters, but is more expensive than H0 and of course, geometrically, requires four times the space of an equivalent H0 layout. As noted above under "Narrow Gauge", it has however attracted a devoted following of narrow gauge enthusiasts who are able to exercise their creativity in the larger scale within the usual H0 scale dimensions.

G Scale
G Scale started out as a generic description of narrow gauge Scale 2 (1:27 or 1:28, technically Gauge 2n) trains; as opposed to Scale 1 (1:32) trains, both running on a 45mm gauge (Gauge 1) track. (The difference in scale [where it is being observed] is or should be readily noticed in the size of the track ties as between that made, for example, by LGB for Scale 2, and that by Märklin-Maxi for Scale 1.)

There has been a real resurgence in popularity of Gauge 1 for "large" trains, and some real confusion has been created by popularly referring to both the true Scale 1 trains and all the variety of narrow-gauge scale trains running on 45mm track, as "G scale". The emergence of F Scale that seeks to define an exact modelling ratio of 1:20.32 (or 15mm to the foot) for one specifically-defined scale of narrow gauge trains running on 45mm (Gauge 1) track, identified as Fn3 Scale; is a step to refine the labelling of this generic conglomeration of "large scale" trains on 45mm track. Confusing? Yes - there are as many as six or seven scales ranging from 1:32 to 1:13.7 using 45mm gauge track.
Note: the meaning of "G" has been variously ascribed to "Garden"; or "Grosse [Bahnen]" as in German for "large [trains]"). The "F" of F Scale stands for Fifteen mm to the foot, and other refining scales for trains using 45mm track are sure to emerge.  

Whatever one's choice, above all, model railroading is intended to be fun, relaxation, and if one is looking for it, congenial fellowship. And while the hobby and the layout can certainly have its frustrating moments, there is nothing that can't be solved with patience, creativity and perseverance.